The Idea of an Electric Bronco May Seem Like a Revolutionary Concept. Historically Speaking, It Isn't
There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about the rising popularity of electric cars. Many Ford Bronco fans are eagerly awaiting the release of an electrically powered version of the ultra-popular SUV. And should that happen anytime soon, that release would be joined by both Ford’s already successful Mach-E SUV and the soon-to-arrive Ford Lightning F-150 in holding the distinction of being propelled by technology that was scoffed at by some not all that long ago.
With the newly escalating enthusiasm for electric vehicles on the whole, as well as the eager anticipation of an electrically-powered Bronco, it may seem that viable electric automotive technology is fairly new, but in reality, it’s been around for quite a while. In fact, it’s probably only through a convergence of just a few specific and unfortunately-timed events that an electric Bronco wasn’t already in the lineup when Ford reintroduced the model.
Let’s take a look back at some of the key events that have shaped the trajectory of the electric motor’s viability.
Before Italian Allesandro Volta invented the battery in 1800, electric technology wouldn’t have been possible — for the automotive industry or for any other application. But once batteries were readily accessible, it didn’t take long at all for electric propulsion to gain momentum. By 1834, Prussian Moritz Jacobi had created a rotating electric motor and just a few years later improved upon it to the extent that it was powerful enough to propel a boat carrying 14 passengers across a fairly wide river.
At about the same time, a few key inventors were beginning to make further progress. Dutchmen Sibrandus Stratingh and Christopher Becker built an electric motor that powered a small model car in 1835 and two years later, American Thomas Davenport would be granted a patent for his own take on the electric motor. Because these early versions were all single-phase motors, they were fairly limited in practicality — as single-phase current pulses — so it would have made safe driving quite a challenge. Also, rechargeable batteries were still a way off.
When rechargeable batteries did arrive on the market in the 1880s, along with three-phase electric power, some impressive achievements soon resulted. American William Morrison created a six- passenger wagon that could reach 14mph in 1890. To put that into historical perspective, Carl Benz of Mercedes-Benz had applied for a patent on his gasoline engine just four years earlier.
It’s worth noting that, despite substantial progress, electric vehicles were still seen as being fit for only “city use” because of their limited range — a shortcoming that has persisted even to this day, although it’s fast being overcome. Nonetheless, electric cars were commonly used as far back as 1897 as taxis in both London and New York. The latter city was the home of Samuel's Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which sported a 62-cab fleet.
Electricity Was Once the Preferred Automotive Technology
The advantages that electric motors offered then over their gasoline counterparts were widely recognized, although they differed a little from the advantages that present-day fans of the technology bring up. Whereas those who now are hoping for an electrically powered Ford Bronco cite instant torque and environmental friendliness as the reasons for their enthusiasm, circa 1900 those advantages centered on electric cars’ relatively vibration-free operation, their absence of a strong gasoline smell and their lack of a need for hand cranking at startup.
At this point in time, while most vehicles — even those that were land-bound — were powered by steam engines, electrically-powered cars still outnumbered those powered by gas.
Today, buyers hesitant to pull the trigger on putting an electric vehicle — including Ford’s Mach-E — in their garage often cite the current lack of available charging infrastructure as the reason for their reluctance. Even those who would otherwise be all too eager to own a future electric Bronco and the otherworldly power and acceleration it would wield generally express concern about being stranded out in the middle of nowhere.
As you can imagine, charging stations were exponentially rarer back in the early 1900s. This lack of availability was one of the factors that seriously hampered the future success of electric vehicles.
The Landscape Shifts
Henry Ford has been referred to by many as the inventor of the automobile. While this isn’t accurate, he did create the first automobile assembly line, which drastically reduced the cost of producing cars, and made them far more accessible to the public than ever before. Electric vehicles had no such advocate, so they were still produced one at a time — they cost about double what one of Henry Ford’s creations sold for in the early 1900s.
By the 1920s, the nation’s highway systems and roads were improving, with more miles of paved access being added by the month. American drivers were getting used to longer weekend journeys and weekday commutes. While the habit of increased driving would ultimately lead to Ford mining an opportunity to create a more powerful, better driving SUV in the form of the Bronco in the mid-’60s, it was still another factor that gave gasoline powered cars a decided advantage, as electric vehicles still featured very limited range.
A few years earlier, the invention of the electric starter made hand cranking a vehicle obsolete, while more efficient extraction processes were starting to make gas increasingly more affordable. It now seemed that the advantages gas-powered cars offered were insurmountable and always would be. But the landscape would soon shift, though only subtly at first.
AMC (American Motors Corporation) had always been seen as an innovative company, though far less influential than its rivals, like GM, Ford and Chrysler. By the mid-1960s, AMC embarked on a partnership with battery maker Sonotone to create an electric vehicle that would be at least passably practical for the masses. And while the partnership did result in some viable prototypes, none made it to production. In 1967, just one model year after the debut of the Ford Bronco, a second venture with Gulton, the company that created the pivotal lithium battery, would prove even more fruitful, and AMC would go on to create an all-electric Rambler station wagon.
The 1970s would bring a number of changes that would make electric cars potentially desirable again. First and foremost were two separate oil embargos that made gas very difficult to get, ultimately leading to rationing. While electric cars do rely on petroleum to an extent, since the most widely used methods of producing electricity in the U.S. still involve its use, the effective “gas mileage” of electric cars has long been superior to those powered by gasoline. There was now a slowly spreading belief that, if enough electric cars could be produced, it would lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Also, overall air quality in the country was rapidly declining, a change that was increasingly being attributed to the proliferation of gas-powered vehicles.
The U.S. Government decided to get involved, creating the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1976 that would provide incentives for the development of electric vehicles. Chevy actually leveraged these incentives to create an electric version of the Chevette the very same year. While it wasn’t produced for the masses, it easily could have been, save for one very pervasive factor — the power and influence of the oil lobby.
For a couple of decades, automotive manufacturers were caught between the bases. On one hand, they wanted to stay on the government’s good side by continuing to develop and produce vehicles that were less gas-reliant, but at the same time, the oil lobby was doing what it could to keep domestic petroleum processing maxed out. The net results of this tug of war were both the development of a number of thoroughly viable vehicles, including the first Honda EV, and the absence of a viable charging infrastructure, which dissuaded manufacturers from actually promoting their new creations.
Details of this long continuing conflict were featured, front and center, in Chris Payne’s 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?"
A Genuine Disruptor Enters the Market
The meteoric rise of Tesla and its development of lithium ion technology played a huge factor in making electric cars more desirable. Up to 2008, when Tesla’s Lotus-based Roadster was released, electric cars still really didn’t have the range required for everyday use and most were decidedly lackluster as far as both aesthetics and performance. By contrast, Tesla’s Roadster could get more than 200 miles on a single charge and, by virtue of its Lotus styling, it looked great and was also a strong performer that could get from 0-60 in under 5 seconds.
As you can probably imagine, Detroit on the whole was flabbergasted that an upstart company could make so much progress in so little time, but that progress definitely served as a motivator to make up for lost time. In a 2009 New Yorker article, GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz remarked, "All the geniuses here at General Motors kept saying lithium-ion technology is 10 years away, and Toyota agreed with us — and boom, along comes Tesla. That was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam.”
As a side note, there was no such logjam in many other countries. For example, by 2016 in Norway, fully-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles made up more than 40% of all passenger car sales.
The Next Chapter is Being Written Now
While you can make a strong argument that its rival at GM has made more substantial progress in incorporating electric motor technology into its offerings, Ford has definitely accelerated its own efforts of late. Many car enthusiasts have complained about the company’s appropriation — some would even say misappropriation — of the renowned Mustang nametag for its new electrically powered Mustang Mach-E SUV, but the capabilities of the vehicle itself are beyond reproach. A Mach-E in GT trim can get from 0-60 in about 3.8 seconds while still offering a range of more than 250 miles.
Now that we’re starting to see more charging stations pop-up — the credit for which has to go at least in part to Tesla’s popularity — and the estimated range of electrically powered vehicles seeming to increase almost constantly, the prospect of an electric Ford Bronco and its instant torque and outsized horsepower is becoming all the more appealing. We look forward to seeing how the process unfolds.